By Jon Bastian
Con Slobodchikoff, PhD, professor emeritus at Northern Arizona University and director of the Animal Language Institute, is on a mission. He believes that, using Artificial Intelligence (AI) software and hardware, it will be possible to communicate with animals within five to ten years.
He has already completed studies on prairie dogs which suggest that they use language for communication. As he explains on his website, prairie dogs, “have different alarm calls for humans, coyotes, domestic dogs, and red-tailed hawks. In addition, the prairie dogs can describe the size and shape of an individual predator. This is the most sophisticated animal language system that has been described to date.”
In the prairie dog language, descriptors seem to break down to species, size, shape, and color. For example, a coyote might be combination of sounds for “coyote, medium, rectangular, brown,” while a snake would be “snake, large, cylindrical, gray.”
Attempts to decipher animal language are nothing new. Dr. John Lilly began studying dolphin communications in the 1950s, and we know by this time that dolphins do communicate with each other through specific sounds. Individual dolphins also identify themselves with a unique whistle that they learn early in life, always adapted from their own mother’s unique “signature” whistle.
Chimpanzees and gorillas (most famously Koko) have learned to use sign language to “talk” to us, and other studies have shown that parrots are not merely repeating what they hear. One African grey parrot, Alex, demonstrated extensive language skills, including making up words or phrases to describe new objects he was not familiar with, such as “banerry” (banana and cherry) to describe an apple.
Other birds, particularly crows, have been seen in the wild to be able to recognize specific human faces, as well as point out humans who have harassed them to other crows — leading to entire flocks harassing the human back.
So, why is Dr. Slobodchikoff so interested in developing a dog translator? As he described it in an interview in The Atlantic, many dogs are destroyed every year because of behavioral issues, and they have those issues because of the difficulty that dogs and humans have communicating with each other. “And if we had a chance to talk back and forth,” he told The Atlantic, “the dog could say, ‘You’re scaring me.’ And you could say, ‘Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that I was scaring you. I’ll give you more space.’”
But before you dismiss Dr. Slobodchikoff’s ideas as being no different than the Japanese invention BowLingual, which was reported to be arbitrary and inaccurate, his translator will not rely on just barking or vocalization. With advances in video-capture and facial recognition technology, his system will also account for a dog’s body language.
Of course, as Cesar would tell us, we don’t need any fancy equipment or computer translators to understand what our dogs are telling us. We just have to learn how to “listen” to their body language and energy but, more importantly, we have to become acutely aware of what we are saying to them with our own energy and behavior.
Dr. Slobodchikoff thinks that dog behavior problems can be solved “if” we learn to communicate back and forth with human’s best friend, but there is no “if” with Cesar. There’s no need to wait five or ten years until there’s an app for that. You can start to learn what your dog is telling you right now.